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Gorman: Pitt-Penn St.: What took so long'

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

While reading the self-congratulatory statement announcing the renewal of the Pitt-Penn State football series — even if it is only for two games — several questions immediately crossed my mind.

Among the most important: How much regret is there that it went away• How long is it going to take to recapture its spirit• And, what took so long?

"Really, I think about what that game is going to be like in 2016 and I'll make this pitch: Buy your tickets now; first in, best seats," said Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson, who once infuriated Penn State by forcing fans to buy a ticket package instead of selling single-game tickets. "I do think because of the history and tradition and longevity of this rivalry, I think these things reignite instantly."

While some are celebrating the announcement of a two-game series between the schools in 2016 and '17 — no promises beyond that — it's only fair to wonder why Pederson and Penn State's Tim Curley allowed a generation of Panthers and Nittany Lions fans to grow up without this game.

By the time Pitt and Penn State play Sept. 10, 2016, at Heinz Field — after a 15-season hiatus in the series — their freshman classes will have no recollection of the Panthers playing the Lions in football.

Since the last Pitt-Penn State game in 2000, the Pitt-West Virginia "Backyard Brawl" has superseded it as the annual rivalry game you want to circle on the schedule. The revival of Pitt-Penn State shouldn't change that.

No matter how much those in the ivory towers tout the cooperation between the state's biggest schools, Pitt and Penn State officials should be ashamed of their failure to play in the past decade and for playing only six times since 1991.

Instead, Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg's statement praised how the renewal of the football rivalry is "consistent with that broader relationship, is good for both universities, will be welcomed by college football fans around the country, and presents another important opportunity to showcase Pennsylvania, the home state that we proudly share."

Again, what took so long?

Pitt and West Virginia have had their share of unforgettable games — most notably the Panthers dashing the Mountaineers' national championship hopes in Morgantown with a 13-9 victory in December 2007 that serves as the Brawl's version of Penn State's 48-14 upset over the No. 1 Panthers in 1981.

Undoubtedly, Pitt and West Virginia will have made more memories by the time Pitt and Penn State play again. Lions fans so satisfied with their membership in the Big Ten will have little regard for playing a Big East foe, one they have long believed is beneath them.

"The modern-day fan from central Pennsylvania to eastern Pennsylvania, they don't care about the Pitt-Penn State series," said Penn State author and historian Lou Prato, who then took a sarcastic shot: "If they are only going to play twice in 16 years, oh, that is really going to be a great rivalry."

What's lost in this train of thought is that, in terms of rivalries, Penn State needs Pitt more than Pitt needs Penn State. The Panthers have an archrival in West Virginia; Penn State has yet to find one to replace Pitt as its year-end combatant.

One clear thing is PSU has a timeline for the retirement of Joe Paterno, who has held a decades-old grudge against Pitt because he believes it sabotaged his plan for an Eastern power conference. It's no coincidence that the streak of 58 consecutive Pitt-Penn State games, which started in 1935, stopped when the Lions began Big Ten play in '93.

"I think Joe Paterno is getting soft," said Jackie Sherrill, the former Pitt coach and Paterno nemesis. "The Joe Paterno I used to know, he was not that soft. He must be getting soft in his old age, or is trying to do the right thing."

The guess here is Paterno won't be coaching the Lions in 2016, when he will be 89 years old. And that his declining to comment on the resumption of this series speaks volumes about his involvement in the resumption of it.

And once again, what took so long?

What Pederson and Curley need to do is find a way to make this game an annual rivalry again, a series without interruptions. Pitt should insist that every season has Penn State and West Virginia on the schedule, serving as bookends.

Start with the Rivalry, end with the Brawl.

This time, don't take so long.

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